Thursday, May 23, 2013

Teachers: Protective Saviors or Overpaid Babysitters--You Can't Have It Both Ways

I want to quote a friend of mine, Kharon Grommet, who, in response to the amazing stories of teachers protecting children from the tornado in Oklahoma, posted this as her Facebook status : 

 "Teachers ARE Heroes EVERYDAY!! Why is it that we only recognize this after a tragedy? Believe it or not, teachers PROTECT and IMPACT the lives of children and their families on a DAILY BASIS!  It's a little annoying to be celebrated after a tragedy and then disrespected and suppressed in the classroom!"


In the past few days, I've been gratified to read that there were some articles in the mainstream press that pointed out the irony in our talk of teachers as saviors and heroes.   From MSNBC there was a great piece entitled " Teachers: Heroes in a crisis-- but otherwise under fire".  CNN Opinion's LZ Granderson also wrote in defense of teachers: "So yes, it is fiscally responsible for a community to talk about loss of tax revenue and budget deficits. But we ought to be careful not to vilify this profession while doing so.Teachers are not glorified babysitters with summers off. Their profession fuels all others, and on a normal day that is amazing enough in and of itself."

As parents, we watch the news coverage of these events in horror.  It is a shocking reminder that we entrust the care of our children to these professionals every single day.  There are so many expectations of teachers.  We expect teachers to not only keep our kids physically and emotionally safe from harm, but we expect them to instill a love of learning, curiosity, good citizenship, social skills, creativity and, yes, good test scores… all of which we hope will enable our kids to grow up to be valuable and productive members of society.   I would argue that this is likely what all citizens of this country expect, regardless of whether or not they have children of their own.  Kids are, after all, our hope for the future.

Yet how do we repay these teachers? How do we show this great care and respect for them?

Teachers have the lowest morale in decades.  Throngs of teachers are fleeing their jobs, either to early retirement or to another, more respected, less stressful, (and likely better-paying) career. 

Despite the laudatory remarks by politicians and business people who create and fund educational “reforms”, the clear message from policymakers and the media is that teachers are not to be trusted.  We must breathe down the necks of every single professional working with our children to ensure that they are all teaching the same thing at the same time in the same way.  We even have a billionaire willing to fund surveillance cameras in each classroom to be sure that teachers are on task and, in the vernacular of today’s educationspeak: "accountable" and "efficient". 

In our state of Indiana, we Hoosiers respect teachers so much (read sarcasm.  It’s my first language) that we now allow anyone to become a teacher who has a degree in any subject, no experience in the classroom with a mentor teacher necessary.  We respect educators so much that we now allow anyone with a Master’s degree in any subject to become a superintendent of a school district, no education background necessary in order to evaluate principals and run a school system.  We value teachers so much that we have silenced their collective voices through the unions so that the only thing that they can bargain for is pay; not, for example, their working conditions that are simultaneously the learning conditions for children.  We Hoosiers respect teachers so much that we have tied their pay to test scores, despite the evidence that this is no way to evaluate good teaching.  We have tied their job security to these scores and even the security of their place of work: the school, to these scores. We treat everything they do to carrots and sticks, and call this reform “data driven.”

“Data driven” policy is driving teachers right out of the profession.  The message from the politicians/policymakers and the public who elect them is: PROVE your worth and dignity as a teacher.  Prove that you are making a difference in kids’ lives.  And so teachers have been forced to be data-collectors.  This creates the choice for teachers between doing what is right for children (focusing on that which is NOT on the test, that which is playful and fun and creative) and keeping their jobs (test scores).  This is very, very wrong.

You cannot quantify all that a teacher does.  Yes, we should have evaluation.  Yes, we should have accountability.  But we must first recognize that these people who care for our children for the pittance we pay them and the disrespect we show them are doing so because they want to make a difference in our kids’ lives.  Can Bill Gates come up with a bracelet that will monitor how loved a child feels? Will Pearson ever create a test that will reflect the "ah-ha" moment when a kid has finally understood a concept she’s been trying to grasp for months? (And which a teacher has been trying to get across in a myriad of methods and efforts for the same amount of time?)

Allowing children to play and explore is developmentally appropriate practice, not babysitting.  If politicians want to see “proof” of its efficacy, there are reams of educational research that validate what good teachers know and do.  Teachers do not go into teaching for the money.  They also don’t go into teaching to collect data on children.  They go into teaching to make a difference in kids’ lives.  They love learning and they love children.

It is not enough that we commend teachers for their heroism in the face of tragedy when they throw their bodies in front of bullets or flying debris from tornadoes.  Those events are symbolic of what teachers do for our kids and our society every single day.  The smaller acts of heroism: connecting to a hard-to-reach child and giving him a feeling of self-worth, helping a kid to find her passion, discovering what the special key is to how these children learn, these are just some of the ways that teachers change lives. 

The truth is that there are good teachers and there are bad teachers, but it is those educators who know best how to effectively teach.  They know best how to determine “success” in the classroom.  They are trained and educated to understand the process of learning and teaching.  And it is exactly these professionals who are NOT determining the direction of education in our current climate of “school reform.” If we truly respected our teachers, we would vote for legislators who defer to their expertise and authority and stop meddling in the classroom.  It is not enough to praise our teachers only in the face of tragedy and share a Facebook meme in their honor.  We must trust teachers to do their jobs every day and encourage their voices to be at the center of any reforms.